A Little Happier: Don’t Be So Modest. You’re Not That Good

I love new words and phrases, such as doomscrolling and staycation, and one of my favorite neologisms is the “humblebrag.”

A humblebrag is “an apparently modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud.” So if you want to brag, but you do it in a way that makes you seem modest, or if you gripe about something that’s enviable, that’s humblebragging. For instance, something like “This red carpet scene is so boring” or “I’m such a slob that I spent only an hour at the gym today.”

Along the same lines, I’ve coined the term the humblevain (at least I think I’ve coined it)—when you make a point of your admirable humility, or when you’re self-effacing in a way that assumes that your achievement or status is greater than it is. For instance, someone once told me, “Despite all my success in my career, I’m still really down-to-earth,” which I found quite funny, and someone else told me,  “I really can’t take credit for how well the conference went,” when that person wasn’t responsible for the conference’s success at all!

I’ve never forgotten a funny example of the humblevain that I read about in Marjorie Williams’s excellent collection of essays, called The Woman at the Washington Zoo (Amazon, Bookshop). In it, in the essay “Uriah Heep Goes to Washington,” she recounts a “great old story” (which may mean that it’s an apocryphal story) about a conversation between Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan and journalist Edward R. Murrow. Williams writes:

Dayan repeatedly tried to praise some of the legendary CBS newsman’s greatest broadcasts. At each point, Murrow turned aside the praise, graciously disclaiming the achievement or giving credit to others. Finally, after the third try, Dayan threw up his hands, saying, “Don’t be so modest. You’re not that good.”

In Andy Warhol’s memoir POPism: The Warhol Sixties (Amazon, Bookshop), Warhol writes “The moment you label something, you take a step—I mean, you can never go back again to seeing it unlabeled.” Now that I have label for these kinds of statements, I can’t un-see them, and I get a tremendous kick out spotting examples.

Have you ever learned a word that made you see the world in a new way?

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